Tuesday, March 25, 2008


“We can’t run from who we are. Our destiny chooses us.”

Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a struggling law student; he’s also a world class poker player, who, in the film’s opening scene, loses all his money in a high stakes game.

Nine-months later Mike has renounced gambling and made up with his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol). He works a part time delivery job and works towards a law degree. Life is hard, but good, though he still misses the game and the thrill of playing.

When Mike’s best friend Worm (Edward Norton) is released from prison with a substantial mark to be paid off Mike finds himself pulled back to the tables.

The story is presented from Mike’s perspective with commentary, which comes and goes, giving us a glimpse into the world of professional gambling and his own views on life. The story feels authentic and real; at no time does the film cop-out with huge twists or unlikely hands.

Damon and Norton are terrific as the leads of the piece and could easily carry it on their own, but that would mean we would miss out on the other characters the script offers. The film surrounds the pair with talented actors including John Turturro, Famke Janssen,Martin Landau, and John Malkovich.

Although the film centers around gambling, specifically poker, and the cost and consequences of winning, losing, and cheating, the film is also a smart look at how a person’s past remains part of them forever. Anyone has has given up a hobby, vice, sport, or activity, can relate to the issues Damon’s character struggles with throughout the film. As can anyone who’s had a friend from your old life reappear only to cramp your new one. The film includes a nice scene between Mike and his professor (Landau) discussing how we are granted certain skills which should not be ignored. The film’s philosophy about gambling isn’t simple. The game itself isn’t good or bad, it’s merely open for those talented enough to use it for their own ends.

There are too many other great moments to list here but I will include the mention of the bookend scenes with Mike’s heads-up play against KGB (Malkovich) which provide opportunities for each actor to shine, and the scene where the regulars all show up in Atlantic City at the same table to fleece the weekend gamblers which, for me, provides some of the funniest moments of the film.

The one-disc Collector’s Edition DVD is well stocked with extras. Included are two commentaries, the first from director John Dahl, Edward Norton, and writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and the second, from World Series of Poker winners Johnny Chan (who has a small cameo in the film), Phil Helmuth, Chris Moneymaker, and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, which looks at the realism of the poker scenes throughout the film. Also included is a simple Texas Hold ‘Em game called “Heads Up Hold ‘Em,” a behind the scenes featurette on the film, a featurette on professional poker, and separate poker tips from the professionals I mentioned above. Overall, a very nice group of special features.

Rounders is the type of film I forget how good it is until I watch it again. From the look and style, to the dialogue, to the compelling performances, moments, and scenes, the film is a winner. Is it a tad too pat or clichéd in it’s structure? Does it glorify gambling a little too much? Perhaps, as our hero does rediscover his game, and the love he has for it, but remember this is a sports film where the guy loses the girl, loses his job, and loses his best friend, (plus gets the ever-living snot beaten out of him). So it’s not exactly your typical happy Hollywood ending. It’s an easy recommendation for me to make and a hard standard for future films dealing with similar issues to live up to. The extras presented on this DVD are nice, but the real reward is the film itself, which definitely deserves a look.

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